Browsing: CD and Book Reviews

Amid the excitement over a rediscovered rehearsal tape of the composer playing Symphonic Dances, there arrives a new account of two concertos with Rachmaninov’s favourite orchestra and the living pianist who most resembles him. Deutsche Grammophon has titled the album Destination Rachmaninov. Departure and furnished the cover with a portrait of the soloist, Daniil Trifonov, sitting in the kind of railway compartment that went out with shellac records. Do not be distracted by these marketing tricks. Trifonov opens with C minor concerto with quiet authority, each chord darker than the one before, Rachmaninov at his most morose. If this concerto had a…

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Camille Saint-Saens was the first Frenchman to compose piano concertos. Of the five that he wrote between 1858 and 1886, only the second gets much play and one hears few claims that the rest are scandalously neglected. Some connoisseurs consider the fourth his best. Most agree that the fifth, a pastiche of tunes supposedly sung by Egyptian boatmen at Luxor, falls somewhere between embarrassing and irredeemable. The Canadian pianist Louis Lortie and the young Frenchman Bertrand Chamayou have kicked off cycles of the concertos on their respective labels. Lortie, vastly experienced, plays 1, 2 and 4 on his release, never…

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The one thing that keeps me from awarding this album the full five stars is that it is upside down. It opens with a perfectly decent performance of Bela Bartok’s first violin concerto by the Norwegian virtuoso Vilde Frang, with the Radio France philharmonic orchestra conducted by Mikko Franck. Frang, who is 32, has been performing since she was ten years old. Everything she does is perfectly lovely and agreeable. The first Bartok concerto, a youthful effusion of innocent love, is not going to change our lives. The octet, on the other hand, might. George Enescu was one of the great…

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A bad album by Joyce Didonato is such a rarity that it warrants serious attention. The release at hand is a live recording of a Wigmore Hall recital just before last Christmas – not so much a recital as a tissue of decorations around a half-hour monologue by Joyce’s favourite composer Jake Heggie, ll of them accompanied by string quartet.  The monologue is an evocation of the life of Camille Claudel, model and muse to the sculptor and painter Auguste Rodin. A sculptor herself, Claudel never gets the recognition she possibly deserves and winds up sadly in an asylum. It’s…

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Two problematic symphonies by a tortured composer are despatched by the Boston Symphony and its Latvian conductor with near-nonchalance.  The 4th, withheld by the composer for quarter of a century after Stalin’s attack on Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, is ultra-Mahlerian in its orchestration and ironies and utterly daring in its refusal to toe the party line of relentless positivism. The key to the composer’s intentions eludes many conductors. Andris Nelsons adopts a kind of Baltic neutrality in downplaying the score’s emotional extremes in the hope he won’t get mauled by the Russian bear. It’s a fine performance, lacking only the…

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Universally popular in the first half of the 20th century, the music of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari has vanished into thin air. A Venetian of German ancestry and education, Wolf-Ferrari rejected modernism and allowed himself to become – along with Mascagni, Repighi, Malipiero and most Italian composers – a cultural poster-boy for the Mussolini regime. This affiliation accelerated his reputational decline after 1945; he died three years later. But there is nothing ideological about his music. Nor is it in any sense reactionary. On the contrary, Wolf-Ferrari wrote romantic music because that is all he was equipped to do and he did…

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The problem with Clementi is that there are no standout works. Where most famous composers write a couple of pieces that are gripping enough to be an entry point to their output, the London-based Italian just wrote and wrote more and more sonatas at roughly the same level of invention, leaving the new listener no idea where to start. Opus 33, published by Longman and Broderip in 1794, is not a bad door-knocker. Clementi employs many of the same devices as Mozart – a seductive melody, a secondary detour and several strong teases before he delivers a resolution. There’s nothing…

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There’s a debate going on among agents as to whether it is better for an artist to have an exclusive record contract or to work across several labels. Alisa Weilerstein, who has made outstanding recordings of the Elgar, Dvorak and Shostakovich concertos for Decca, has now popped up on a Dutch label with the two Haydn concertos and Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night. Pentatone is a terrific label, run by former Philips professionals. This ought to be a top-drawer recommendation. Why it isn’t is a matter of some perplexity. Weilerstein dispenses with a conductor for these pieces, which is not unusual. But…

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Numerous bids are being made in this centennial year to redeem Leonard Bernstein’s three symphonies from their fatal flaws. None that I have heard makes a better fist of it than Antonio Pappano’s new set with the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome. Pappano, who met Bernstein as his would-be repetiteur on an opera production, has a keen empathy for the composer’s melting-pot background. From first note to last, he tones down gestural excesses and desperate self-borrowings. The Rome orchestra plays like a Broadway pick-up band – Broadway usually recruited the best players in New York – and the soloists…

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I need to declare an interest. I have described Steven Osborne elsewhere as the most interesting British pianist of his generatiom, a declaration which practically precludes me from reviewing his recordings, predisposed as I am to praise them. It’s a dilemma which I try to resolve by listening to everything that Osborne does and allowing at least a year to elapse between one enthusiastic review and the next. You’ve no idea how taxing this can be. That said, I am happily immersed in the two Rachmaninov sets of piano sketches, written in 1911 and 1916 and apparently not intended for…

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